Ministry of Education, The Term Paper (Part 2)

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The Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology

All MEST up?

Criticisms of the South Korean Education System

There are many views on the nature of South Korean education, but it is far more common to hear criticism than praise. Korean education, to be fair, is saddled with a number of difficult tasks. It must prepare the people of Korea for challenging economic circumstances, fairly, while reinforcing and defining Korean identity and providing a means of measuring individual students’ abilities. It must do all of these things in a challenging and contentious political landscape, and it must consistently provide the best possible education to each successive class of students, making radical fundamental change difficult. Most common criticisms of the Korean education system surround its excessive focus on testing, its intense competition and the tendency to discourage creativity in favor of rote learning. These criticisms, some more valid than others, point out the major points of discontent for Korean parents, thinkers and industry, but they ignore one important question: do these traits of the education system prepare students for success in Korean society? Success in Korea is often defined by the ability to pass exams which are more tests of will than of knowledge. Competition is a fact of life in a crowded country of fifty million increasingly well educated people with a shrinking industrial sector and continuing shift towards a knowledge economy. As for rote learning, it is perhaps more difficult to defend, but the fact remains that a talent at rote memorization does require practice and can be quite useful.

The point is, these observations and criticisms merely graze the surface of a very complex set of circumstances. South Korea’s education system is often described as being ‘in crisis’, and yet it continues to be a driver of the country’s economic success. Korean students frequently outperform those of countries perceived to have better education systems. To properly understand the discontent with the Korean education system, it may help to look at those most dissatisfied.

Many citizens have issued a vote of no confidence in the education system by opting out. The term ‘educational refugee’ is used, perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, to describe South Korean citizens who are sent to other countries for their education because of doubt over the quality of domestic education. The number of Korean students in the U.S. alone tops 100,000, and accounts for a full 10% of all foreign students in the country. One survey found that 48.3 percent of those over 20 with children wanted to send them overseas to study (The Korea Times, Oct. 17, 2008) and the trend has only accelerated in recent years as income levels have risen and more of those parents have been able to make good on their desire to educate their children abroad. In the two year period from 2005 to 2007, the number of Korean elementary students studying abroad doubled (The Korea Times, Jun. 18, 2008). Despite these growing trends, there are difficulties. Koreans are the third largest group of foreign students at Harvard and achieve similar statistics at other Ivy League schools, and yet Korean students also drop out of these same schools at a higher rate than any other nationality (The Korea Times, Oct. 3, 2008). Samuel S. Kim, the author of the doctoral dissertation which described this high drop-out rate attributes the numbers to Korean parents’ excessive focus on academic achievement over extracurricular, social and charity activities, but others have interpreted the data differently. Writer Michael Hurt has extensive experience working in several of the elite foreign language high schools attended by many Korean students who go on to attend top schools in the U.S. According to Hurt “The problem is that Korean kids are quite good at the standardized testing that gets them into American colleges, but what the schools cranking them out don’t do is prepare them to do all the work after they get in the door.”

For those without the means or the inclination to send their children abroad for education, a massive extracurricular education industry has developed in Korea. These private institutions teach any subject currently tested. It is not uncommon for a Korean middle or high-school student to rush to such schools as soon as the regular school day is over and study at as many as three or four schools in a single day before returning home late in the evening. Attending these institutes is considered so essential to education that typically only the most financially disadvantaged do not enroll. The focus of the majority of these schools is test preparation, with education for elementary students more foundational, and that of middle and high school students increasingly focusing on test performance.

The Ministry of Education faces constant public challenge over these issues. Ministry policies and actions are often the subject of headline news closely followed by the public. In this highly visible atmosphere it is difficult for the Ministry to maintain a solid point of view, and public and political considerations often trump policy goals.

Politics and Vision Don’t Mix

The Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology also faces a unique set of political challenges. It is said that there are three broadly defined types of governments (U.S. Constitution Online). The British type pursues as its main focus the reflection of the ruling party’s view and the realization of their goals. The American type has as its main focus adherence to a constitution. The ruling party may interpret that constitution but are prevented from radically rewriting it. The French type of government seeks to express the will of the public at any given point in time. The South Korean government is of this last type. In terms of reaction time, such governments are superb. In areas such as IT infrastructure that experience rapid change this type of government is at a great advantage, as evidenced by the recent history of South Korea. But South Korea’s education system demonstrates the flip-side of the equation, that the ability of the government to respond with startling speed to those issues which have caught public attention can be both a blessing and a curse.

The MEST’s website features a diagram entitled ‘Vision’. At the bottom of the diagram are the words ‘Fortify the united capabilities of Ministry of Science and Technology’, with arrows pointing upwards through a series of boxes and bubbles with headings such as ‘Reconsider the satisfaction of school education’, tenuously linked and all pointing towards the top of the chart, featuring the phrases ‘Revive the education and build a leading country in science and technology’ and ‘Build a first class advanced country’. This all lacks the brevity that is the key quality of the typical vision statement, with a total of twenty stated goals across six categories. Many of these stated goals are true vision statements, for example, inspiring scientists, making ‘happy schools’, and ‘promoting basic foundation research’. Others are esoteric. It is doubtful whether anyone in the MEST to explain what ‘Propel united growing projects’ may mean. Many others, however, are simply tactics or plans. In particular, under the heading ‘Build self-regulated, diversified education system’, the three items listed are ‘Reinforce local self-education’; ‘Diversify high school 300 project’; and ‘College entrance 3-step self-regulation’.


The Ministry may not be entirely to blame for the mixed message that it’s sending. Its ‘Vision’ diagram appears to be based on a common template shared by other Ministries, suggesting that its creation was mandated by government policy rather than generated from within. Incidentally, the current president of South Korea, Lee Myung Bak, initially threatened to abolish several Ministries in an effort to streamline the government and cleanse it of entrenched elements, the Ministry of Education included. In the end he had to settle for the typical South Korean political purge, finding excuses to gently nudge out those in control at the Ministry and installing his own people within two months of the inauguration (JoongAng Daily, Jan. 4, 2008).

It is perhaps easier to get a picture of the current administration’s vision for the Ministry by looking at the words of those at the helm of the Ministry. In a November, 2007 interview in Diplomacy magazine, then Minister of Education Kim Shinil spoke mostly of fostering top talent and elite research skills in Korea, citing the Brain Korea 21 project for funding cutting edge research and The New

University of Regional Innovation Project, which seeks to develop elite world-class talent in narrowly defined fields at regional universities. Kim stressed that, in order for these efforts to be successful they must be cost effective, with a focus on practical R&D. In May of 2008, the next Minister of Education Kim Doh-Yeon gave an interview with the JoongAng Daily detailing his educational philosophy. His vision echoes in many ways those of education ministries in other countries. Kim stresses the need for gradual progress in the system rather than rapid change. Most tellingly, Kim says “Larger side-effects can occur if the central government has to take measures on every little issue.” The implications are interesting. The MEST currently takes measures on every little issue, and has done so since its inception. Minister Kim clearly knows this fact, and likely believes what he said in the interview, and yet the knowledge of the way things should be has not translated into change.

The Ministry’s dealings with unions follows the general trend of Korean society. The Korea Teacher’s Union, which claims 27% of the nation’s teachers as members, is both liberal and highly nationalistic like all Korean labor unions. The Union supports a less test-based, more open and nurturing education system of the kind found in most western countries, and yet it also pushes a highly liberal political agenda which loses it support among the government and the general public. It glorifies its own pro-democracy, anti-dictatorship pedigree to the detriment of its bargaining power and credibility, despite offering concrete solutions that are agreed upon in principle by all parties involved, including Ministry officials and the public. It is another case of everyone knowing the right answer and nobody being able to do anything about it. The KTU’s activities consist primarily of protesting and mobilizing students in nationalist and/or liberal movements such as 2008’s protests against US beef. The question of sitting down to discuss education reform is never addressed by the Ministry, which maintains a contentious collective agreement with the KTU that serves as a bone of contention and frequent battleground for both sides. The tragedy is that the KTU shares common goals with the Ministry of Education and even agrees with them on the possible solutions to the problem, but the two sides are unable to reach an agreement because of the broader context of government-union relations. The two sides seem bound to reenact the same pointless struggle without end.

Korean government officials are held under close scrutiny for any perceived corruption. One needs only to consider that the English word ‘lobby’ has been borrowed into Korean (로비) with a similar meaning but a strong connotation of wrongdoing, and that public figures regularly come under fire for having been ‘lobbied’. The mere appearance of lobbying in Korea is enough to derail a political career, at least temporarily. That is why one must question the wisdom of the Ministry’s decision to provide special subsidies to any schools visited by senior Ministry officials around Teacher’s Day (May 15) in 2008. Officials were told this in order to encourage them to visit schools and speak with teachers, a part of their job in which they had in the past been negligent in the past. The majority of officials visited their own alma maters or the schools of their children, and some of them explained to school officials the arrangement the Ministry had made to provide them with subsidies. When this policy became a public scandal under the headline “Ministry officials offered money to their kids’ schools”, the Ministry’s reaction was to punish those officials who had explained the arrangement to the schools they’d visited while maintaining that the policy had been put in place to encourage the officials to visit schools. In the words of a Ministry spokesman “Thinking about it now, it was a very bad idea. But we didn’t think of it that way at the time.”

One of the clearest examples in recent memory of the detrimental effects of politics on education in South Korea is the long drama surrounding the establishment of the nation’s first law schools. As with all sought-after professions in Korea, those wishing to enter the legal profession in Korea are required to sit for an arduous examination. There is no qualifying score for the exam: a quota system is in effect which sets the number of people to pass the exam each year. One’s chances of passing the exam vary from year to year depending on the severity of competition: the same score may get one into the chosen quota in one year but not in another. What sets the legal profession apart from others is that the government has in the past prevented the establishment of law schools. The quota, currently set at 1,000 new lawyers per year, and the restrictions on law schools have resulted in the limiting of Korea’s legal services market to well under demand. The Korean Bar Association estimates that even raising the quota to 3,000 per year would not satisfy the demand for lawyers. As a result of this shortage nearly half of the cities, counties and districts in Korea currently have no lawyers (Kim Kwang Rok).

The movement to establishment law schools in Korea was begun in 1995 and championed by the Korea Bar Association. This group has also long lobbied for the current quota to be increased in order to expand access to legal services for all citizens. These joint objectives were proposed in order to introduce more American-style accessibility into the Korean legal system. The law school proposal turned out to be more politically acceptable than the proposal to raise the quota, and the two efforts were decoupled at an early stage, with the KBA focusing its efforts on the establishment of law schools. Still, some of the most ardent proponents of law schools in Korea point out that, without a lifting or easing of the quotas, the law schools alone will do nothing to improve the quality of Korea’s lawyers. The schools will be bound to teach to the test, meaning that in the end their curricula will be no different from existing undergraduate law programs, which are geared primarily towards Bar exam preparation.

The abandonment of the quota relief effort was not the only political compromise made to bring Korean law schools into existence. The original law school plan called for the establishment of three tiers of law schools at universities designated as appropriate. The National Assembly finally approved the plan in July of 2007. In February of 2008, the newly elected Lee Myung Bak administration stipulated that law schools should be located in each province in the interest of balanced regional development. Then Minister of Education Kim Shinil pushed forward with the plan as it had been previously set out, leaving South Gyeongsang, South Jeolla and South Chungcheong provinces without law schools. As a result, Kim was made to resign from his position, and replaced with current Education Minister Kim Doh-yeon (Joongang Daily, Feb. 6, 2008).

The difference between initial intention and final result is stark in this case. The original goal, to create a more accessible legal system by broadening education and raising the number of trained lawyers in the country contrasts with the establishment of law schools without a change in the Bar exam quota system. The end result is further tightening the legal services market by creating a new level of qualification, a degree from a prestigious law school, that will set some Korean lawyers above others in the future while doing nothing to improve access to legal services. These changes came about due to the Ministry’s inability to escape its focus on standardized testing.

In October of 2008 the Korean government performed an audit on itself, a very public, very heated event in which Ministries are called to task for their actions, evaluated, and publicly shamed (Yonhap News, Oct. 8, 2008). After the traditional criticism of the previous ten years’ mistakes, Democratic Party Assemblyman Kim Jin Pyo asked the Minister of Education “What do you think of my bill to invest five trillion Won per year to raise the competitiveness of the nation’s colleges, which is the root cause of all the education problems in Korea?” No one corrected him.


~ by Joshing on December 16, 2008.

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